The world of higher education is in an uproar due to Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and the danger some predict they will bring to higher educational institutions. Sebastian Thrun, cofounder of Udacity, one of the most prominent MOOCs, predicted that in 50 years there would only be 10 institutions in the country.
MOOCs are full courses, (including all lectures, discussion forums, assignments, exams, etc.) from universities such as Princeton and Stanford. These courses are put online through Coursera, Udacity, and several other online platforms where they can be taken by anyone in the world who has an Internet connection.
Princeton, Bill Gates, and several companies have donated millions to the growth of this experiment, but of course MOOCs are still in their beta stage, which means they are flawed, but still free. Many concerns about their quality and effectiveness have yet to be answered.
First of all, most of the courses currently offered by Udacity and Coursera are technical; computers are unable to grade creative writing or essays. Nor are they able to keep students from cheating on the multiple choice exams they offer.
Cheating in higher education is a large enough issue when a professor is present to monitor an exam; when there are 160,000 students from all over the world enrolled in one course, deterring cheating becomes virtually impossible.
This also makes it difficult to fully test students on their knowledge, and lowers the trustworthiness of certification and good grades.
Another reason MOOCs success may be doubtful is signaling. While the money, skill, and technology to find ways of deterring cheaters, certify course completion, and grade essays, are available, there is no guarantee that employers will trust MOOCs once all of these issues are ironed out. Employers have chosen degrees as a signal that people are ready to take on a job, even if the degree is unrelated to the actual task.
Skeptics also question whether delivering course content can be called educating. Online courses lack the community of learning formed by students and professors in the actual classroom. They also lack the networking and community involvement that is so crucial in helping students find a career.
Finally there is little research to prove whether an online college classroom is actually conducive to learning. While online learning has proven effective, MOOCs produce a high dropout rate due to a lack of motivation and structure.
This is a long, but still incomplete list of problems. However, are all of these issues enough to keep MOOCs from being successful? Probably not: a generation of young people going into lifelong debt because of higher education is unsustainable. Millions of people are already flocking to the tuition free MOOCs, and as they progress and find ways of becoming accredited, this number will only grow.
The dissemination of information is changing, and as newspapers continue to learn, free information is generally more widely consumed, whether or not it meets a high standard of quality.
But take away the debate on whether this experiment will leave higher education in ruins within a few decades, the beauty of these courses now, is that people all over the world are learning, and that is never a bad thing.